My sermon last week was headed ‘Back to Normal’, and, starting from the Transfiguration story of the previous week, along with the heady heights of Morland Choristers’ Camp, I was trying to plot where we ought to be going, given that it’s not in our nature to be able to remain in a permanent state of exaltation.
In the event, ‘normal’ is a word which I would surely not attach to this last week. At our own personal level we have been immersed in the 32nd Morland Folk Dance Week, offering a chance for enjoyment and energetic relaxation (can there be such a thing?) to visitors from all over the country, as well as from Australia and California. And no doubt others have been holidaying in our area while some of our neighbours and friends have been away on holiday. Generally a very pleasant departure from ‘normal’.
Meanwhile, we have the events in Spain and Finland, as well as ‘natural disaster’ in Sierra Leone. (I’ve put ‘natural disaster’ in inverted commas: we’ll come to that shortly.) These events are newsworthy, and hit the headlines. There is also what you might call the ‘background radiation’ of events in Nigeria, Eritrea, Egypt, China and many other places, where religious conflict is leaving hundreds and thousands displaced or imprisoned for their faith.
And again, you will know that Sandy Pearl has recently been in a part of Africa where she witnessed poverty and hunger which clearly made a serious impression on her.
What should we do in the face of these events? Do we just decide that there’s nothing we can do, and bury our heads in the proverbial sand?
Our readings today do rather suggest that we should not!
In Isaiah, we read: Maintain justice and do what is right, and the prophet goes on to include foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord. He is not speaking only to Jews.
Our psalm for today, ps.67, says may the peoples praise you, O God, may all the peoples praise you. Then the land will yield its harvest, and God will bless us, and all the ends of the earth will fear him.
And in our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus rebuking those who would slavishly apply the law without applying any common sense.
Nowhere are we told to bury our heads. On the contrary, we are taught to work for the establishment of the Kingdom of God. How can we possibly speak in those terms with disaster of one sort and another all around us? How can we expect to see the Kingdom when all around us is gloom and doom? Much better just to hide away in the Garden of Eden where we are privileged to live and let the rest of the world get on with it.
A part of our response to that should be to say that actually things are getting better. You can find any number of statistics and newspaper articles showing that, world-wide, living standards are improving; world-wide, there is more peace than at earlier times; world-wide, there is more justice than at earlier times. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. What it does do is offer us encouragement to carry on!
In the face of the week’s news, you might find this hard to accept, but you don’t have to read too much history of our country over the last 2,000 years to conclude that, on the whole you’d rather live now than then.
Of course this is hard to accept, and the fact that bad news is so much more newsworthy than good doesn’t help.
I don’t want to spend time going into detail of what is now better than it was. We can talk about it afterwards if you like. But if you will, please accept that in many ways things are better. We are that little bit nearer the Kingdom of God than we were.
Now if that is the case, we must ask how it is that that has come about. Can we learn from history? How have changes been brought about? Very often they come from below and from individuals who decide that ‘something must be done’. You might think of the abolition of slavery, once a perfectly normal and acceptable fact of life; or the Peace Movement in Northern Ireland back in the mid-70s, started by two housewives in response to the death of three children; or the equality and emancipation of women, still work-in-progress, but nonetheless impressive for what it has achieved.
And whilst you might think that poverty and starvation are everywhere, only a little delving will show that things are getting better.
Perhaps we should now take a look at the disasters of this week and see how they fit in.
Firstly, the terrorist attacks in Spain and Finland. This war against extremism is perhaps the hardest one to deal with. We appear to be dealing with people who have no concept of ‘reason’ or ‘negotiation’. They appear to have been brainwashed into the notion that their personal martyrdom is the short-cut to heaven and that taking some infidel with them serves to bolster their credentials.
I do believe that this is one principally for the Muslim community. Some are speaking up and saying that none of this is to be found in the Koran or any other Islamic scriptures. Islam, like Christianity, is a religion of peace. More need to say so, and specially at the ‘grassroots’ level in homes and around the dinner table.
In terms of what you or I might do, I suggest that we have two routes. We can and must pray. Pray that the Holy Spirit will enter the hearts not only of those who would do evil, but also of those in the silent majority who might find themselves with a chance to say something within their family or within their mosque.
Secondly, where we do find ourselves in touch with Muslims who are seeking peace, we should offer them any sort of encouragement or support that we can. I don’t believe it is our place to interfere: that would lead to resentment, but if we can offer sensible discussion and support, we should.
Now to what I referred to as ‘background radiation’, the persecution of religious minorities in so many places. Individual incidents make the news from time to time, and then things disappear from the radar as other events take their place. But Christians and Christian leaders are imprisoned and tortured for years at a time in Iran or Eritrea or China. There are those who say that there will soon be no Christians at all in the Holy Land, where it all started.
What can we do about that? We should know that there are individuals working in very dangerous situations, trying to help, trying to negotiate. Some are working with organisations like Release International, some are well-known individually, such as Canon Andrew White, the controversial ‘Vicar of Baghdad’.
Sadly, publicity comes to people like this only when they overplay their hand and mud can be found to throw at them.
Once again, we ask ourselves what we can do. Once again, an important part of the answer is ‘Pray’. People imprisoned for their faith repeatedly tell us that the knowledge of prayers being offered for them really helps. If you feel that you are merely shouting into the wind, listen to what these people say – and don’t give up.
The other part of our response has to be to give. I know we are perpetually bombarded with requests for support, and we can feel overwhelmed. All I can suggest is that we each examine the causes that come to our notice and make our own decisions about where to offer our gifts.
Which takes us then to ‘natural disasters’. Some are indeed exactly that. Some disasters are exacerbated by mankind’s stupidity, say, in building on flood plains. There are those who are blaming the mud-slide in Sierra Leone on man’s stupidity in deforestation – the trees used to stabilise the ground. Others will tell you that it is all due to excessive rainfall and climate change – which opens up the question of whether or not that is man-made.
We are all aware of the saying (in whatever form) give a man a fish and you feed him for an hour: teach him to fish and you feed him for life. Wherever the saying came from, it does contain a great truth. Where there is a disaster, as in Sierra Leone, there is a need for an immediate response, and we (Morland Church) have an emergency fund which exists so that we can make such a response. We do also need to replenish that fund, and to that end, there will be a plate at the back of the church for us all to contribute to replace the £100 which we are sending.
Or on the principle of feeding him for life, we need also to offer support to projects like the Bishop’s Harvest for the Hungry appeal, which this year is starting a three-year project to support and train farmers in Zululand and Malawi. We have of recent years given at least a part of our harvest festival giving to this cause. I hope we will do so again this year.
So I would urge us all not to bury our heads in the sand, not to believe that all is lost, not to think that ‘I can make no difference’; on the contrary, we must all recognise that, overall, many things in this world are hugely better than they were even just a few years ago, and that much of the betterment has come from individuals who each thought they had no power at all to help.
So I am not ashamed to ask you to put contributions in the plate, or, if you don’t have anything with you now, please send it to Jenny, or give it to the churchwardens for forwarding to her.
But also, please go on supporting the longer-term things, the things that fall out of the news.
Remember Isaiah: maintain justice;
and the psalm: may the peoples praise you;
and Jesus teaching us to apply common sense.
Let us pray……